Over the past two decades, participative, team-oriented management has significantly improved the quality of organization life while enhancing productivity, efficiency and creativity. Many organizations report substantial contributions to bottom line results through consistent application of open leadership practices.

Nevertheless, managers often express the conviction that management by participation must be limited to routine circumstances. While they pay lip service to its benefits, many managers silently view participation as too difficult, too time-consuming or too weak. If a problem or crisis arises, teamwork, if practiced at all, is suspended by managers who are convinced that power, authority and control are essential to successful resolution.

Others suggest that participative management is situation-specific. It applies, they assert, to some situations with some subordinates but is inefficient and ineffective in situations containing an element of danger or crisis or when the subordinate is capable of functioning independently. An important experiment involving an organization development firm and a major airline suggests critical flaws in the conventional wisdom view of what constitutes strong, effective leadership in crises and demonstrates the utility of participative management in even the most threatening, danger-laden situations.

Cockpit Crisis

Official studies of airline industry accidents and near misses cite “human error” as the cause of 80Vo of the incidents investigated. An important National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) publication concludes: “One of the principal causes of incidents and accidents in civil jet transport operations is the lack of effective management of available resources by the flight deck crew.” NASA’s findings and related industry research help clarify the direct relationship between leadership processes and flight safety. In the airliner cockpit, traditional, authoritative leadership is often dangerous and sometimes fatal.

One major airline responded to the need for alternative leadership approaches and improved teamwork in the cockpit by involving behavioral science experts in a joint safety-enhancing effort. Seven airline officers and seven organization development specialists formed a task force to identify and provide the skills required for more effective leadership and teamwork. The airline staff contributed technical expertise and direct flying experience to the project, while members of the organization development firm offered insight into underlying human dynamics and application of behavioral science theory and principles to sound leadership practice.

Grid analysis

After 18 months of study and analysis, a systematic framework identifying various options for the exercise of cockpit leadership was completed. A basic grid structure of our methodology and design, as represented on the next page, was used as a point of departure; then special adaptations specific to the cockpit environment were made. A skills development process was designed to present these options to captains and crew members and to accomplish the objective of improved flight safety through 9,9-oriented leadership and teamwork.

Strong, effective crisis leadership can make the difference between resolution and disaster
Drs. Robert R. Blake and Jane S. Mouton

More than 5,000 airline industry captains and crew members have since participated in the Cockpit Resource Management Seminar. During the seminar sessions, flight personnel experience the various leadership options first-hand through simulations and instrumented team learning designs. Strengths and limitations of these five styles are then evaluated for both routine and emergency flying circumstances. By an overwhelming majority, participants unanimously agree which is the most effective style of cockpit leadership, especially under crisis conditions.

Lack of time is rarely a factor in averting disaster. In a matter of seconds, skilled professionals can communicate even complex data to one another. By providing other crew members with an opportunity to contribute their input and perspective, the captain helps ensure a safe solution. ‘When sound leadership is consistently applied across a range of situations, teamwork provides the key to generating superior alternatives and taking optimal actions.

There are at least five significant differences between the conventional view and a sound model of leadership at the point of crisis. Perhaps the most obvious difference involves the processes for decision making. At issue is not who makes the decisions when an emergency arises but how the decision is made. Both approaches recognize the ultimate responsibility and accountability of the leader but hold opposing views as to the appropriate use of decision-making authority.

Shared understanding

Traditionally, crises are resolved through unilateral, authoritative decisions. Implementation depends primarily on the leader’s power and position. Alternatively, a 9,9-oriented leader withholds a final decision pending team member involvement and participation. Shared understanding and mutual agreement are the keys to cooperative, coordinated action.

Most organizations employ “early warning systems” for pointing up potential trouble spots and allowing timely action to avert disaster. Though few are as complex and sophisticated as those used in modern jet aircraft, almost all “detection” systems rely on people to read signals and initiate action.

Inquiry involves constant monitoring of the organization’s danger signs to ensure consistency between intended and actual outcomes. In an effective team, members’ observations of the environment are freely offered and receive the leader’s serious attention. Measuring progress toward established objectives becomes a shared responsibility. Leaders operating from the conventional mode are more likely to interpret members’ observations as inappropriate questioning o¡ unwarranted criticism. Team members may learn to withhold their warnings even when danger is imminent.

Advocacy is another critical element of teamwork effectiveness that is viewed differently from conventional and sound leadership perspectives. When a problem arises, the 9,9-oriented leader is open to solutions and recommendations proposed by others. Effective team members are responsible for openly and directly expressing their ideas, doubts, reservations or misgivings. Though the leader ultimately determines the course of action to be followed, intervening discussion of options increases the chances of adopting a sound strategy. Conventional leaders prefer acceptance and compliance to advocacy, and the quality of the eventual solution often suffers as a result.

A model of sound leadership recognizes that conflict is probably inevitable, particularly when members are encouraged to express their thoughts arid opinions. Potential negative and destructive consequences of unresolved conflict are avoided, especially in emergencies, because apparent conflict is surfaced, explored and resolved.

Conflict resolution focuses on what rather than who is right and provides a foundation for mutual trust and respect, deeper issue analysis, better problem definition and improved solutions. The conventional approach to conflict is to squelch it before its insidious and divisive effects are felt. Disagreements or differences of opinion are viewed as problematic and unacceptable and are often settled by a win-lose appeal to power and authority. While it may be possible to submerge conflict in the short run, the longer-term frustration, resentment and latent hostility which result often emerge in counter-productive, anti-organization activities.

Examine success

Finally, critique is an important element of sound leadership and team effectiveness, because it provides a framework whereby members can learn from experience. Through a process of preplanning, ongoing feedback and post mortem evaluation, effective teams examine their successes as well as their failures. Future action in crisis is strengthened through continuous analysis of cause and effect and performance improvements. Mistakes of the past are consciously avoided. Conventional wisdom applies critique primarily as a means of placing blame or fixing responsibility for errors. Only failure is seen as a potential learning experience – successes are savored, not studied.

In business, industry and government, effective action in crisis situations is a critically important measure of managerial performance. Proper planning and anticipation can prevent routine, recurring problems from assuming crisis proportions, but unexpected developments characteristic of today’s complex organizational environment cannot always be predicted. When avoidance of these potentially disruptive situations is impossible, strong effective crisis leadership can make the difference between successful resolutions and disaster.

Wide range of uses

Several conclusions can be drawn from the formulation of sound leadership and effective teamwork presented here.

First, sound leadership has a wide range of practical utility for the management of crisis. This has been demonstrated in one of the most demanding of all environments, the airliner cockpit. The skills of effective leadership and teamwork may be beneficial in other hazardous settings as well. Life-threatening crises experienced on the nuclear plant floor, in the provision of police and fire protection and in other high-risk environments may also be more effectively resolved through strong 9,9-oriented leadership and teamwork.

In the corporate setting, crises may be less dangerous or threatening in terms of risk to life and limb, but they are no less critical to those responsible for maintaining organization health and vitality. Organizations can avoid highly disruptive or potentially destructive situations through the consistent practice of management through participation.